Creator/writer Julian Fellowes talks about the recently completed fourth season and looks to the future of “Downton Abbey.”
The fourth season of “Downton Abbey” concluded Sunday with the servants Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson joining hands on a beach as they walked into the water together. It was a serene image that belied a year on this PBS “Masterpiece” period drama that was filled with tumultuous events — a character’s rape and the fallout from it, the introduction of race as a plot point — and, at times, tumultuous audience reaction.
All of which, said Julian Fellowes, the “Downton Abbey” creator and writer, makes it no different from any other season of this series about British aristocrats and their household staff. It reliably stirs up its audience once or twice a year, but is otherwise as notable for a lack of action as for when it occurs.
“ ‘Downton’ is, God knows, a slow burn of a show,” Fellowes said by phone recently from London, where he was revising scripts for its coming fifth season.
If there is any formula, he said, it’s that “we have these fairly lilac-covered, gentle narratives, interweaving. And every now and then — poof — something huge happens.”
That could surely be said about the episode in which the lady’s maid Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt) was raped by a visiting nobleman’s valet. While the repercussions of the rape played out over several installments, it also angered many viewers, who complained that this dark incident did not fit the tone of “Downton Abbey” and that it had overwhelmed other subplots.
Fellowes countered that Anna’s rape was not “much less of an event” than other dire circumstances that have befallen the Crawley family in the past, like the death of Lady Sybil in childbirth or the car accident that killed Matthew, a new father.
The Anna story, Fellowes said, “was a chance to make the argument for the innocent rape victim who has done nothing to deserve it.
“It created this mammoth thing that she and Bates had to get through,” he added, referring to her husband, “and Bates’ response is that he doesn’t love her less. He says himself: If anything, he loves her more.”
Love also created complications for young Lady Rose (Lily James), a Crawley family member who fell into a romance with a black jazz singer, Jack Ross (Gary Carr), that scandalized some family members.
Despite viewers’ criticism that Jack Ross was too easily embraced in rigidly divided 1920s Britain, Fellowes countered that the character and his treatment accurately reflected that country’s history.
Attitudes toward race were comparatively more liberal than in America, he said, because Britain had its own black communities earlier and abolished slavery sooner, and its upper-class citizens were more accustomed to encountering nonwhites throughout the British Empire.
By the 1920s, Fellowes said, there would have been “a hell of a lot” of black jazz singers working in London — even those who had affairs with dames and debutantes — but none who would have been allowed to marry into white society.
“However much people were polite and perfectly happy to have all sorts of people at their parties, there was a rule governing who you settled down with,” he said. “I don’t think we tried to whitewash that.”
Gareth Neame, an executive producer of “Downton Abbey” and managing director of Carnival Films, the British studio that produces it, said that Fellowes has wide latitude to shape each season as he wishes.
Before Fellowes delves into new episodes, “we’ll sit down and debate and discuss at great length all of the characters and the journeys they might take,” Neame said. “By the time he starts writing, we’ve established the building blocks of where the main characters are going.”